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Putting Trump’s Racism in its Place

One More Reason Why AOC Should Be the Face of the Democratic Party’s Future

In this Saturday’s Washington Post, arch-conservative columnist and regular Trump apologist Hugh Hewitt declared that “The Party of Robert F. Kennedy is Gone.” Hewitt rarely has anything positive to say about Democrats, and this piece is no exception. He appeals to Kennedy for one reason and one reason only: because, as he sees it, in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, Kennedy delivered a speech that “was a heartfelt, deeply moving appeal for healing and love among fellow citizens . . . Kennedy was running for president as a Democrat . . . Still, he did not use the tragedy of King’s murder to score points. He did not demonize his opponents in the field . . . Kennedy spoke to all Americans, especially the deeply traumatized black community, and urged peace and love and healing.”

A naïve reader might read this and imagine that Hewitt’s point is obvious: the contrast between Presidential candidate Kennedy in 1968 and the current President, Donald Trump, in 2019. The contrast is more than obvious. It is glaring. And yet, of course, Hewitt has other purposes in mind. The first is to whitewash the obvious resurgence of white supremacy that was marked by the El Paso mass murder, by asserting a false equivalence between “both extremes.” And the second is to disparage not the President whose words inspired the murderer, but the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to run against him, and to do it because they had the temerity to call him to account for his racist rhetoric:

Indeed, almost all of the Democrats chose in this week following a weekend of horrors to pivot their main message of the campaign trail from “Trump and Russia” to “Trump and racism.” At least five of the Democratic candidates went so far as to brand President Trump as a white supremacist. This is repulsive rhetoric — the sort of speech intended to marginalize and exile. It is “basket of deplorable” on steroids, and it says to every Trump supporter: “You, too, are a white supremacist.”

. . . I do not believe Trump is a racist, much less a white supremacist. I think the rhetoric of the Democratic candidates is incendiary and dangerous, and also politically self-destructive. It is so absurd as to be laughable but for its repetition. But they do not wish to argue, debate and persuade. They wish to smear and exclude, and they have exploited this week’s shock and fear to do so.

Hewitt is no Tucker Carlson. And this is what makes his words so disturbing, and so dangerous. Adopting a posture of “reasonableness,” he does worse than assert an equivalence between Trump and his critics. He falsely accuses the critics of doing what Trump does on a daily basis, by design, and with the assistance of his speechwriters, Attorney General, and ICE commanders — marginalize, smear, exclude, demonize, and target.

The party of Robert F. Kennedy is gone? What about the party of Jacob Javits, and Edward Brooke, and Colin Powell, and the multitude of Never Trumpers who long ago declared that it is not the Democrats but the Republicans who have become the party of racism and xenophobia and sexism, and thus the party of Trump? Hewitt makes even George Will look like a liberal. Jennifer Rubin, the former-Republican who has been a consistently relentless critic of Trump, had it right in her Post column last week on “What Leadership Looks Like.” Rubin praised many leading Democrats who, “in the absence of a functional president of the United States, went above and beyond to exert moral leadership.” But her piece centered on Nan Whaley, the Democratic Mayor of Dayton: “She has worked closely with Gov. Mike DeWine (R). (‘They have effusively complimented each other at news conferences and tried to put on a bipartisan front for gun control proposals.’) She hit the president for his role in fanning hate, greeted him politely, told him that real gun-safety legislation was needed and gave him the back of her hand when he falsely said that she had mischaracterized his hospital visit. She also slyly dinged him for referring to Toledo, not Dayton, in his teleprompter speech from the White House on Monday. She struck just the right tone — calm, commanding, empathetic and determined.”

Rubin is right to praise Whaley for her conduct. Contrary to Hewitt, a great many Democrats — and virtually no Republicans — responded with intelligence and composure to the awful shootings and the danger they portended.

But to my mind the most powerful response to the shootings was offered by a less “moderate” figure than that preferred by Rubin: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the incredibly charismatic young democratic socialist whose words at a Brooklyn vigil combined outrage, dispassionate analysis, political determination, and a striking spirit of generosity.

Here is a video clip of her speech:

Here are her words, worth reading carefully:

There are so many issues that are weaving themselves into a braid of violence throughout our country.

One of them is white supremacist terrorism. And in order to solve this problem, it’s not good enough just to call it terrorism out here in the public. We need to call it terrorism in the statutes. In the statutes. So that the FBI can investigate white supremacists and their violence as terrorist acts. That’s the first thing we need to do.

Secondly, this is domestic terrorism, but it is not just domestic terrorism. Because as we learned in Christ Church, white supremacy is an international terrorism problem. And we have to treat it seriously. We have to treat it seriously. And it is the presence of white supremacy that prevents us from treating white supremacy seriously to begin with.

That’s the second thing. The third thing, as was mentioned, we in the House have passed several bills, several bills, that are common sense, bipartisan . . . background checks Act, HR 8 . . . almost all of these shooters have a troubling history of violence or threatened violence against women. It is a warning sign for mass shooters. So the third thing we passed was the Violence Against Women Act, which prevented dating partners with a history of abuse and threatening abuse and stalking against women . . . from having a gun.

Lastly, we need to address the rhetoric around immigration in this country, because it is directly responsible for what happened in El Paso. It is directly responsible.

When we allude to people as an invasion, as an infestation, we are directly, we are directly pulling from the language of white supremacy, directly pulling from the language of white supremacy. So I don’t want to hear the question, “is this president a racist?” anymore. He is.

But–what I have to say to the young men and increasingly some of the young women in this country, that are falling into the grips of white supremacy, that find themselves getting radicalized in a funnel of vitriol, towards Latinos, towards immigrants, towards African-Americans, towards Jews, towards all people, Black, towards all people, Jewish, towards all people of different faiths, what I have to say to you is come back. Because there is a mother waiting for you. I know it. I know there is a teacher waiting for you, saying ‘what happened to my kid?’ ‘What happened to my friend?’ And we will always be here, and hold space for you to come back. We will love you back. You are not too far gone, and I know that this society is isolating, I know that this society creates depression, I know that the lack of opportunity here, from Brownsville [Brooklyn, J.I.] to El Paso, because Jumaane is right, all of us is right, this is not just about assault weapons, this is about gun violence in all of our communities. So whether it’s from misogyny or whether it’s from racism, you’re not more of a man with a gun. You’re not more than a man if you are capable of violence. You are not stronger if you tear another life down. We have to make sure that we address that in our culture. Fixing this is about fixing the laws, but, it’s about addressing our culture. We’re gonna have to go deep. We need to go deep, because it’s not just those that have succumbed to hate that have to change. We need to learn to love bigger to bring them back.

That is our charge.

And I thank you all for doing that work.

This is an extraordinary speech. It names the problem bringing her audience together in all of its complexity (“thread of violence”), linking racism, sexism, the prevalence of weapons, the demonization of immigrants, and the rhetoric of Trump. It identifies the problem as political, involving domestic and international “terror networks,” laws and public policies, and leaders who are capable of doing great harm or great good depending on the allies they choose and the choices they make. AOC is an adept practitioner of a style of the contentious politics of agonistic respect. And while she pulls no punches here, and names real political enemies — white supremacist groups, and the President who aids and abets them — this is not a harsh speech, it is not partisan (mentioning neither the Republican nor the Democratic party), and it is not focused on Trump.

Indeed, while AOC makes it clear that we must fight against racism and violence, she quickly and seamlessly pivots to the theme of conciliation, appealing to “the young men and increasingly some of the young women in this country, that are falling into the grips of white supremacy, that find themselves getting radicalized in a funnel of vitriol,” acknowledging the social sources of some of their grievances, and reminding them that they can “come back” to civil society, to their mothers, their teachers, their friends — and their fellow citizens. At the same time, she reminds her audience of fellow citizens that “We need to go deep, because it’s not just those that have succumbed to hate that have to change. We need to learn to love bigger to bring them back.” And she closes by thanking those in attendance for beginning to do that work.

It is an extraordinary speech in its refusal to demonize and in its articulation of the political value not simply of justice or solidarity but a kind of love (here AOC in some ways echoes Hannah Arendt). It is also extraordinary in its modesty, its lack of grandstanding or posturing or any kind of attention to self. AOC mentions “our task,” she thanks her audience, and then she quietly and graciously stops speaking and hands over the mic.

In every way imaginable, this young woman is the exact opposite of the angry narcissist who currently occupies the White House. She is a fighter, and a healer, and a leader. She is also supremely attentive to the situation and its demands. And so this proponent of the Green New Deal and of “democratic socialism” mentions neither of these important commitments, typically major themes of her public speaking, and is all the more political in her forbearance — because in this situation she is reaching more deeply, and also more broadly.

Hewitt invites us to read RFK’s April 4, 1968 speech in Indianapolis. I’ve done so. It’s a powerful speech, all the more so, like AOC’s speech, for its brevity. These words stand out to me now:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. . . We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

RFK does not ignore the need to fight injustice. But he projects a vision of democratic citizenship that can alone justify, and thus limit, the fight. It is a vision very much akin to the “beloved community” extolled by Martin Luther King, Jr. And one that, sadly, was extinguished with his June 1968 assassination (The similarities between these two martyrs of 1968 are developed in David Margolick’s fine 2018 book The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy).

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not (yet?) an RFK (or an MLK). But her speech sounds remarkably similar themes. And she represents a new generation of truly multicultural Democratic leaders that possess vision, charisma, and savvy.

Hewitt, the cynical Trumpist, declares that the party of Kennedy is gone.

Perhaps that party is yet to be.

________________________

(I would like to thank my friend and colleague Rom Coles for bringing AOC’s remarkable speech to my attention via his powerful comments on Facebook.)

Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, now available from Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can talk to him about this essay on Facebook.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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